Federal Judge Cancels $125m In Oil and Gas Leases on Sage Grouse Habitat

Greater Sage Grouse Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

A federal judge in Idaho last Thursday invalidated $125 million in oil and gas leases on public lands in Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah because the Trump administration failed to give the public adequate time for comments on them. The ruling protects the greater sage grouse, a species for which the Obama administration implemented a set of wide-ranging protection plans, including foregoing oil and gas leases on sage grouse habitat to keep the bird off the endangered species list — but it does not extend beyond the 67 million acres of sage grouse habitat under federal management.

Why This Matters:  Score one for the sage grouse!  Under the ruling,  nearly 1 million acres’ worth of fast-tracked public lands leases have been canceled.  Wyoming and an alliance of western energy producers argued that canceling the leases would require the government to refund the full value of the leases but the Judge decided that allowing them to go forward despite the procedural flaws would incentivize the government to approve massive potentially illegal projects.  The sage grouse had only narrowly avoided being listed under the Endangered Species Act despite sharp population declines across their 11-state range due to development, disease, drought, and wildfires.  The Trump administration can try to cut corners rolling back Obama-era conservation policies, but they will be held accountable to the law at least for a time.

What the Ruling Means

In the future, in order to comply with the Judge’s order, any new leases on greater sage-grouse habitat must allow a 30-day public comment period.  The Trump administration had by fiat reduced the comment period to only 10 days, and NGOs argued that was too little time for there to be meaningful public comment.  The administration changed the comment period in a 2018 instruction memorandum that aimed to “expedite the offering of lands for lease.” A Bureau of Land Management spokesman told The Hill that the BLM remains “committed to a simpler, more effective leasing process. We have been working within our legal authorities to alleviate or eliminate unnecessary and burdensome regulations, while at the same time upholding public health and environmental protections, including sage-grouse conservation.”

To Go Deeper:  Watch this short segment on the sage grouse from the PBS series This American Lands.

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